Have you ever noticed the subtle ways your grocery store tries to get you to spend as much as possible? In the aisles, the most expensive products are strategically stocked at eye level. The staple goods are inconveniently located in the very back of the store, forcing you to walk past hundreds of products you probably don’t need just for a gallon of milk. And the most tempting products — glossy magazines and candies — line both sides of the checkout line.
These little psychological tricks are designed to get consumers to spend more — without even thinking about it.
Online stores have the same goal. Although they can’t use exactly the same strategies, digital marketers have devised a wide variety of ways to nudge customers toward overspending. The user-experience consultant Harry Brignull dubbed these strategies “dark patterns,” referring to subtle design features on websites that prey on our psychology to nudge us toward overspending.
Some of these patterns are subtle, while others are more in your face. Knowing how to identify them can help you keep your budget intact.
Here are some of the most common dark patterns you’ll want to recognize while shopping online.
What motivates consumers to ignore their budgets and overspend? According to Abigail Sussman, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, it has a lot to do with the desirability of the product.
“Sometimes that’s the scarcity motive — this is going to run out soon,” she says. “All of these things, on some level, just make people want it more or feel like they need to take action now or they might be missing their opportunity.”
FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing, and digital marketers know this. Sussman says there are two main ways this plays out. Both center on scarcity: Either time is limited or quantity is limited. This kind of messaging has a social component to it because it could make consumers feel like everyone else is getting something they’re not. From a budgeting perspective, you might also worry that if you don’t spend money now, you won’t be able to take advantage of the savings opportunity later.
To maximize profits, companies try to make spending money as easy as possible on the customer. Sussman says this includes storing your credit card information. This removes the hassle of having to take out your wallet and manually enter your payment information. Digital forms of payment like Google Pay or Apple Pay work in a similar way.
“One way you can get people to not think about their budgets is to get them to not think about spending being real money at all,” Sussman says. “The smoother the transaction is and the less contact you come into with things like your credit card or cash, the more likely you’re going to be to ignore your budget because, from an attention perspective, it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re spending money.”
This suggests that something deeper is happening behaviorally when we spend money online. Research shows, for example, that the anticipation of a reward can trigger the brain to release the feel-good hormone dopamine. For some, scoring a deal online could fall into this category. Sussman also points to a theory known as transaction utility, which was coined by behavioral science and economics professor Richard Thaler. The term describes the happiness you might feel from the perceived value of a deal.
“You can think about the value that you get from a particular purchase as being attributed to both the value of the product itself and the value of the deal,” says Sussman. “If it feels good to get a deal, in some sense that might be valuable in and of itself.”
Consumer awareness can go a long way in avoiding overspending. Here are some other strategies you can use to keep your spending in check when shopping online:
With the internet right at our fingertips, overspending has become all too easy — and digital marketers are taking full advantage. Knowing how to spot these online marketing tricks can help you stick to your budget and avoid the spending trap.